The Symbolism Behind the Creation and Destruction of the Buddhist Sand Mandala

The sand mandala is a traditional Buddhist design constructed out of colored sand. Monks will painstakingly create intricate patterns then destroy them, an act that may be difficult for non-Buddhists to understand. The entire process takes a long time but has powerful meaning for followers of Buddhist traditions.

Designing the Sand Mandala

The mandala represents the world in its divine form. It shows perfect energy balance and enormous beauty with its use of many colors. Before the first grain of sand is placed, the monks will measure and draw guidelines.

Mandalas will look different based on what they portray. Different types will include symbols for different deities. For example, the Kalachakra (or Wheel of Time) is highly complex because it portrays 722 deities. Smaller mandalas may feature fewer deities and less complexity.

Creating the Sand Mandala

Once the pattern is prepared, sand will be poured from chak-pur, a traditional tool used in the making of mandalas. These tools are cone shaped, usually 12 to 18 inches in length with ridges along the sides. The end forms a fine point with openings of varying diameter to create precise lines. The mandala is created one section at a time and usually takes a team of monks several weeks to finish.

Before this process begins, the monks must prepare the colored sand. Different colors are produced by grinding down different stones. White may be created using gypsum while red sandstone, yellow ochre, charcoal and various mixtures can be used to make yellow, red, blue and black hues.

The Destruction of the Sand Mandala

It’s hard for many to understand why Buddhist monks destroy the sand mandala after investing so much time and effort into building it. The destruction is actually a ritual that is just as important as the creation process. After praying over the mandala, the monks will carefully sweep it up in parts. The destruction represents the fact that everything is moving and temporary, there is nothing permanent in the world.

The grains of sand may be given to those who bear witness to the ceremony. They can be sprinkled on the heads of relatives to spread positivity. The remaining sand is typically placed in a jar, wrapped in silk and taken to a place with moving water, like a river. The sand is released into the water as a symbol of the transitory nature of life.